Sermon at St James

Proverbs 3: 13-18; 2 Corinthians 4: 1-6; Matthew 9: 9-13

To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:

Wasn’t that a lovely reading from Proverbs? Happy are those who find wisdom. In the Bible’s Wisdom Literature, as it’s called, wisdom is personified, and of course it’s a she. What else could it be, especially as it was written by men? She is more precious than jewels; her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace.

In the New Testament wisdom is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. So how can we acquire her? Well, I would say by answering the call of God.

Years ago we had a retired priest come to live where we were. He was a really nice chap, and I asked him to take a service once – only once. I hadn’t realized just how far his dementia had gone. We had a wonderfully muddled service. Anyway I remember him telling me how he was called. He found himself in a railway carriage with the Bishop of Blackburn, who asked him, “What do you do, young man?” “I’m a schoolmaster, my lord.” It was in the days when you addressed bishops like that. “Well,” said the bishop, “I think you ought to be ordained.” And so he was.

You see, it can happen as easily as that. Jesus said to Matthew, “Follow me.” And so he did.

I expect Matthew had already heard about Jesus, might even have heard him preaching. But maybe not. And what a change this call made to his life. The tax collectors of his day were not like those employed by HMRC; they were traitors; they were hated; they were despised, because they were collecting taxes for the occupying forces, for the Romans. And most, if not all, of them were dishonest. The Roman authorities set them a target and whatever they raked in over and above that they could keep for themselves. They tended to be rich, and as far as religion was concerned they were outsiders.

So this made it not only significant but also risky for Jesus to call him. “Fancy him wanting a tax collector to be one of his disciples. What does that tell us about Jesus?” people must have asked. Well, we know of course that it tells us that Jesus is for all, even the most despised outsiders. Just think of that dinner party. It was the sort of invitation we might have been reluctant to accept. The guests weren’t the sort of people you’d really want to be associated with.

It’s not clear from the Gospel whose house it was in. But I like to think it was Matthew’s. He’d just made a decisive, exciting, about-turn change in his life and naturally he wanted to celebrate, inviting Jesus and all his friends, fellow tax collectors and other sinners. And Jesus, much to the disapproval and disgust of the religious leaders, the Pharisees, did not spurn the invitation. It was, to quote today’s Epistle, an occasion where light shone out of darkness.

And so Matthew became an apostle. He hardly gets any other mention in the Gospels, apart from being included in the lists of the Twelve, and in fact Mark and Luke call him not Matthew but Levi. But simply being an apostle says a very great deal: a constant companion of Jesus, hearing his teaching, together with his conversation at mealtimes and so on; observing how he related to people of all sorts and indeed noting his general way of life; then being a witness to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and finally being commissioned to go and tell the Gospel, the Good News, to all nations.

Matthew and the other apostles did not fail Jesus. The Good News could have become old news, no news at all. Again thinking of the Epistle, the light could have fizzled out and darkness been restored. But inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit they proclaimed the Word far and wide and firmly established the Church so that we twenty centuries later can still receive their Good News.

So it is indeed right that each apostle has his own feast day for us to celebrate and give thanks. But there’s more to this particular day because, as the Collect reminded us, Matthew was also an evangelist, a gospel writer.

Unfortunately it’s quite certain, according to the biblical scholars, that  the tax collector was not the author of St Matthew’s Gospel. Who that was is not known, but all the internal evidence of the gospel suggests that he was a Christian who was steeped in the Jewish faith and Jewish scriptures living in Antioch in Syria and writing in about AD 85 or 90, so some 50 odd years after the first Easter.

For centuries his Gospel was considered to be the Gospel, the pre-eminent one. That’s why it came to be placed first when the New Testament was put together. And because it was first, people thought it was the first to be written. But eventually it came to be realized, by careful analysis of the texts, that it wasn’t a matter of Mark and Luke following Matthew, but Matthew and Luke following Mark. Mark was first, and Matthew had a copy in front of him when he wrote his Gospel. He uses almost all of Mark, but abbreviated it and then added much more from another unknown source.    

We are grateful for the whole of his Gospel, its style, its authority, its message, but perhaps it’s his exclusive sections we should be most thankful for on this St Matthew’s Day. There’s the Visit of the Wise Men; there’s ten or so parables including the Ten Virgins and the Labourers in the Vineyard, and most of all that compilation of Jesus’ teaching about how we should love God and love our neighbour, the Sermon on the Mount. Luke has large parts of it, but its fullness is there in Matthew chapters 5, 6 and 7.

But let’s return to the notion of God calling us, to vocations. We used to, and perhaps still mainly do, think of vocations as belonging to doctors and nurses, teachers and clergy, and we used to speak of the clergy being in holy orders. But of course vocations are in no way restricted to such groups of people.

In 1964 when I was a curate we used as a basis for our Lent house groups a book called God’s Frozen People, obviously a pun on God’s Chosen People. Historically it blamed the professional clergy for the fact that by and large God’s church people were frozen, stifled, not encouraged or even allowed to take an active role in the life and work of the church. Over the last 50 years that has changed quite dramatically, partly due to necessity caused by a reduction in the number of clergy and the amalgamation of parishes, especially in rural areas, but in the main due to a fresh understanding of the church being the whole people of God.

But the book wasn’t just about lay people being called to active involvement in church life. It was about God’s call to all work and all community activity. In fact the main thing I remember about the book is that it spoke of the holy orders of plumbers – plumbers in holy orders, and secretaries, and bankers, and carpenters, perhaps especially carpenters.

 All of us can have a vocation; all of us can be called by God, in our job or in our retirement, to do it as well as we can – as well as we can for God and for others.

You and I, we each have a vocation, a call from God, to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, and as followers of Jesus to always treat others, all others, as we would like them to treat us.